Nature Man

I once lived in an old apartment where an R.O.U.S. inhabited my bedroom wall

For those of you heathens who have not yet seen The Princess Bride, an R.O.U.S. is a Rodent of Unusual Size. And yes, Wesley, they do exist. Perhaps not in the Fire Swamp, but certainly in the wall of a shoddy apartment building in Birmingham, Alabama.

Each night, as I tried to sleep, I’d hear the scurrying and scratching aerobics of this wall-dwelling, steroid taking, hamster/squirrel/rat/Chihuahua hybrid beast from hell. I am convinced that this R.O.U.S. was in dream-destroying cahoots with the dogs who lived beneath my window, dogs who began a chorus of barking (one with a high pitched yelp, one with a deep WOOF that commenced an alternating “yip WOOF, yip WOOF” at 4:30 each morning). Each night was a battle.

“Why didn’t you call your landlord, you big dummy?” you ask. Well, Inquiring Reader, it just so happens that I did. Here’s how that conversation went:

Nate: “Hey Bob, this is unhappy tenant Nate calling. Yes, yes… it was great to get hot water back last week. Certainly missed it for a while there, but you are right, the cold certainly helped get the blood going in the morning… I don’t mean to bother you again, wouldn’t think of it, but there is an R.O.U.S. living in my wall. And it’s really loud. It keeps me up at night. I’m alone and unarmed. I was hoping you could do something about it.”

Bob: “Ah, well… I hear what you are saying. Last tenants had the same issue, so I can totally empathize with where you’re coming from. The thing is, that’s just nature, man. I can’t do anything about it. Can’t be helped. The good news is, pretty soon it will be so hot in that wall the heat will either drive him out of there or he’ll die. Welp, must go. Take care.”

Then he hung up.

That’s just nature, man.

I told my friend Daniel about the whole situation and he suggested I should go and (how should we put this?) “defecate” on the landlord’s front porch. When he came out, he would find a note that said, “Couldn’t be helped… just nature, man.”

Though tempting, I decided that my future role in ecclesial environments might be in danger if I followed his advice.

Recently, however, I’ve realized that perhaps my ex-landlord was onto something. Maybe he wasn’t being a jerk, but instead was a visionary in the field of environmental ethics! This whole R.O.U.S. discourse begs an interesting question for us to consider: What is “nature?” And what does that have to do with our lives in the city or the suburbs? What does it mean for the people who say, “Nate, you can keep your hippie-dippie hiking ways to yourself. I like my AC and bed, thank you very much.”

I’ve been harping for a while now about why we need a closer relationship to the land. And no, I’m not advocating for rodent infested walls. I’m talking about something else.

The more I read the likes of McKibben and Berry, and the more I engage with people who have delved deeply into environmental ethics like Nate Van Ypren, the more convinced I become of their arguments that we have a problematic disconnect/binary separating what constitutes “nature” from what is thought of as “civilized.” We think nature is something “out there.”

We think nature is Yosemite

We think nature is the place where we go when we load Skippy the Golden Retriever into the SUV. Unless we are caught in hurricanes or blizzards, we live our lives as if the natural world is in no way connected to our everyday lives in the polis. I, too, am guilty of this binary thinking.

The problem is that that the line between the wild and civilized is more blurred than we think, if there is a line at all. This year alone has brought story after story of coal waste leached into trout streams, of oil leaked into Great Lakes, of tar balls still being washed up on beaches from spills years prior. These stories are not anomalies. The people of West Virginia who went without water for a few weeks got a foretaste of what our present binaries yield.

And, to be fair, I’m not just thinking about the ills of large scale industry. Eventually I have to face the fact that what I consume costs something and what I throw out goes somewhere.

At the end of the day, (I guess) not everyone has to love backpacking or fly-fishing. That being said, I think most of us are pretty invested in having clean water to drink and clean air in our lungs. I’m not a scientist, but it seems to me that the laws of cause and effect are still in play. What happens “out there” will increasingly matter to what happens “in here.” We cannot continue to throw pollutants into the air and toxins into our water and chemicals into our soil and pretend we can avoid any fallout. The R.O.U.S.’s in our walls remind us that our lives are not and never will be separated from our greater environment.

Because hey… that’s just nature, man.

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